Cal Poly's volleyball team is off to its best start in years thanks in part to its enviable size. Nine of the 15 players on the roster, including | Christa Lam/Mustang News

Last season, the Cal Poly volleyball team won nine games.

The year before, the team won 12 games

In 2013, Cal Poly won four games.

The 2015 season, however, is a completely different story.

With seven games left in the season, the Mustangs (16-5, 8-2 Big West) stand tied for second in the Big West Conference. They’ve won eight of their last nine games and dropped only six of the 32 sets in that span. If one ignores a 3-2 loss to Big West powerhouse CSU Long Beach, Cal Poly went 24-3 in eight wins in October.

The most dangerous part of this team? Good luck deciding on one single strength.

A strong answer could be its youth — 11 of the 15 players on the team are underclassmen — and last year’s promising class of freshmen are now sophomores with a full season of experience.

That group of sophomores includes last year’s standout outside hitter Raeann Greisen, who’s averaging 12.3 kills, 2.2 digs and over one block per game this season. Fellow sophomore setter Taylor Nelson is dishing nearly 40 assists per game and leads the team in digs (11.35 per game). And regular starter middle blocker Savannah Niemen fills every role the team needs; she’s fourth on the team in kills, second in aces and second in blocks.

“They’re certainly a lot more experienced, just going through last year,” head coach Sam Crosson said early in the season. “I think that they as a collective group decided they need to put more work in, which happened a lot during the summertime, and we hit the ground running in August and fall camp.”

But beyond the recruiting class of 2014, one huge factor in the turnaround is freshman outside hitter Adlee Van Winden.

The 6-foot-1 phenom wasted no time making her mark. She’s topped 300 kills on the season and has been on a tear in October, averaging 16 kills and nine digs a game. Her ferocity when attacking often keeps the team in games and helps the other players stay focused.

“No matter the score, we keep pushing,” said Van Winden after a 3-1 home victory against UC Santa Barbara. “We play our game and don’t focus on the scoreboard, looking on our side of the net.”

Simply looking at the Mustangs’ side of the net reveals another advantage Cal Poly has in most games. Greisen, Nelson, Niemen and Van Winden are all at least six feet tall. Add in regular starters senior libero Nicole Kessler and junior middle blocker Taylor Greunewald to the equation and the average starting Mustang is more than 6 feet tall.

That size advantage doesn’t stop when the usual starters sit — nine of the 15 players on the roster check in at six feet or taller. Most teams can’t compete with the size and blocking prowess the Mustangs trot out on a nightly basis.

Another strength is the veteran leadership present on the team. Though upperclassmen are few in number, Kessler and senior outside hitter Hannah Schleis have many years of experience in the college ranks and often come in during clutch when the pressure is on.

With the season entering its final month, the team will need that veteran leadership to help pull through, especially in the crucial home matchup against Big West Conference frontrunner Hawaii (20-1, 10-0) on Nov. 19.

“We talked about a lot in our locker room that we are 95 percent more concerned with where we are at both mentally and tactically,” Crosson said. “We spend as much time on ourselves as we do our opponents.”

Last Thursday’s 3-1 victory against UC Santa Barbara (6-15, 2-8) gave the Mustangs a win to close out October with an 8-1 record. It marked the first season sweep of the Gauchos since 2008 and the first win in Santa Barbara in five years.

No matter the opponent, no matter the venue and no matter the situation, the Mustangs’ combination of youth, size and experience give them a solid shot at victory every night. With another strong showing in November, Cal Poly could have a great chance at making the NCAA tournament or, failing that, a promising future with a talented core of standout players.

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